Raymond Carver | Critical Essay by Arthur M. Saltzman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 28 pages of analysis & critique of Raymond Carver.
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Critical Essay by Arthur M. Saltzman

SOURCE: "Cathedral," in Understanding Raymond Carver, University of South Carolina Press, 1988, pp. 124-56.

In the following excerpt, Saltzman compares such stories as "Feathers," "Chef's House," and "The Compartment"—which reflect hopelessness and despair—with "A Small, Good Thing" and "Where I'm Calling From" in which Carver allows his characters more compassion and choice.

"I knew I'd gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone.1 In this way Carver announces a deliberate departure from the relentless austerity of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in favor of the "fleshed out" fictions of Cathedral. "Generous" is the term of approval employed by several reviewers to recognize the ventilation of the claustrophobic method and attitude that heretofore had dominated Carver's work. Perhaps befitting the increased stability and ease in Carver's personal life, the strapped constituents of Carver country breathe a bit more freely in this volume.2

Nevertheless, the majority of the stories dispute any claim to a fundamental break from the tenor of the three preceding collections. While there is impressive evidence in Cathedral of his having begun to transcend the haplessness and brittle restraint that commonly besets his characters, Carver by no means forsakes the "down to the marrow" aesthetic that governed his earlier collection. It may prove instructive, then, to contrast those stories in Cathedral that adhere to the established style with those that signal an opening out into what could be termed a postminimalist direction.

"Feathers" teases the reader with the prospect of meaningful repair in the lives of Jack and Fran only to capitulate to the pervading despair of previous volumes. Jack's first-person narrative turns out to be a prolonged complaint about the irredeemable leakage of time, which is temporarily disguised by the comic conditions of a dinner party at Bud and Olla's. The invitation by his friend at work had originally seemed to Jack to be little more than an opportunity to break the boredom, but in retrospect it stands forth in his mind as the final incident commemorating the halcyon days of his marriage:

That evening at Bud and Olla's was special. I knew it was special. That evening I felt good about almost everything in my life. I couldn't wait to be alone with Fran to talk to her about what I was feeling. I made a wish that evening. Sitting there at the table, I closed my eyes for a minute and thought hard. What I wished for was that I'd never forget or otherwise let go of that evening. That's one wish of mine that came true. And it was bad luck that for me that it did. But, of course, I couldn't know that then.3

Jack recalls, or revises, that early period of his marriage as a time when innocence was a kind of enclave for him and Fran; they felt complete unto themselves and believed they needed neither children nor outside acquaintances to complicate their love. Looking back over the narrative, however, as the fast-forward conclusion of "Feathers" requires the reader to do, exposes intimations of the impending estrangement of Jack and Fran.4 Their insistence upon self-sufficiency, for example, appears to be a shield against incursions that would expose the fragility of their relationship, while their routine discussions of things they wish for but never expect to have—a new car, a vacation in Canada, a place in the country—come to suggest more profound deficiencies.

Having declared her reluctance to accept the dinner invitation, Fran is openly contemptuous of Bud and Olla's lower-class home in "the sticks." To be sure, Bud and Olla are unrefined to say the least: their furnishings are vulgar, their conversation coarse, and their life style utterly unfettered by pretension or taste. Still, they are friendly and as hospitable as their means and manners allow; moreover, the unselfconscious happiness they share makes them invulnerable to disdain.

Jack and Fran, on the other hand, are helpless in the face of confusion or crisis. When upon their arrival Bud and Olla's pet peacock, a huge, ungainly bird, lands in front of their car, their mutual ineptitude shows through:

"My God," Fran said quietly. She moved her hand over to my knee.

"Goddamn," I said. There was nothing else to say (8).

Awe, anger, and bewilderment constitute the full store of their reactions.

The evening is marked by the contrast between the pinched behavior of Jack and Fran, and the natural, if uncultivated, good will of their hosts. While Jack worries that he is overdressed for the occasion, Fran barely manages to hide her contempt, which is revealed most markedly as she watches a televised stock car race with the men: "maybe one of those damn cars will explode right in front of us," Fran said. "Or else maybe one'll run up into the grandstand and smash the guy selling crummy hot dog's" (11). At first Jack attributes her attitude to the fact that "the day was shot" in the weird company of Bud and Olla, but upon reflection at the end of "Feathers," it appears to have been a sign of a more comprehensive impatience that Jack failed to interpret fully.

However, nothing fazes Bud and Olla; even potentially uncomfortable subjects they themselves introduce (about their money problems or her father's death) are smoothly incorporated into the fabric of their abiding love for one another. The plaster cast of Olla's twisted teeth commemorating the eventual miracle of orthodontia, and which sits on top of the television set like a prized relic, is a source of shared enthusiasm over their progress: "That's one of the things I'm thankful for. I keep them around to remind me how much I owe Bud" (13). The stalking peacock, which has free reign over their roof and yard and which is welcome inside the house to play with the baby, may strike their guests as forbidding, but "Joey" is one more member of the family. If Joey does not possess the transfiguring divinity of Flannery O'Connor's bird of paradise in "The Displaced Person," his scaled-down majesty earns no less devotion from Bud and Olla; meanwhile, for Fran and Jack the aggressive peacock symbolizes their harassment.

In short, Bud and Olla do not depend on the meager gestures of charity that their guests can muster. Even the astonishing ugliness of their squalling baby—"Even calling it ugly does it credit," Jack confides (20)—cannot affect Bud and Olla's domestic pride. Indeed, the child makes Fran feel deprived; she grows wistful about seeing her niece in Denver. Holding and playing with him triggers her plea to Jack later that night, which is reminiscent of Mary's urgent desire to be "diverted" at the close of "What's in Alaska?": "Honey, fill me up with your seed!" (25).

But the child they ultimately produce does not avail them, and the marriage tenses, then unravels. Fran quits her job, puts on weight, cuts her luxurious hair that Jack had adored. She habitually curses the episode at Bud and Olla's as though they had caused the downfall of Fran and Jack's last stand of innocence. Jack becomes sullen and uncommunicative—"We don't talk about it. What's to say?" (26)—and increases his distance from Bud at the plant. Whereas Bud brags about his son, Jack merely says that everyone at home is fine and broods about the fact that his boy "has a conniving streak in him" (26). The unexpected detour that "Feathers" takes preempts the story's apparent development toward the verge of reconstituted love; as a result, every detail of the dinner party becomes an ironic portent of present desolation.

Seduction by hope intensifies marital vulnerability. In "Chef's House," as in "Feathers," futility surfaces like some awful genetic code. Wes convinces his estranged wife to relinquish the life she has been building apart from him in favor of rejoining him as he struggles to recover from alcoholism. Currently living in a rented house with an ocean view, Wes tells Edna that he needs her to complete his self-reclamation project. Although their children keep their distance, Wes and Edna spend a good summer together, and Edna, who narrates the story, confides that she has begun to believe in their solidarity again. The inevitable crisis comes in the form of Chef, who returns to ask them to vacate the premises. (He wants the house back for his daughter, who has lost her husband.) Immediately they sense that whatever they have been restoring is counterfeit, that defeat has rooted them out of hiding.

Baffled by the injustice of it all, Wes also feels oddly confirmed in his original definition of his limited expectations, and he suddenly finds himself beyond the reach of his wife's consoling:

Then I said something. I said, Suppose, just suppose, nothing had ever happened. Suppose this was for the first time, Just suppose. It doesn't hurt to suppose. Say none of the other had ever happened. You know what I mean? Then what? I said.

Wes fixed his eyes on me. He said, Then I suppose we'd have to be somebody else if that was the case. Somebody we're not. I don't have that kind of supposing left in me. We were born who we are. Don't you see what I'm saying? (31-32).

It does hurt to suppose, for supposing deludes Carver's characters into fantasies that burst at the slightest instigation; such is the pathology of surrender. Edna cannot hold out for long against her husband's logic, and she ends up absorbing his attitude. The same sort of "I should have known better" tonal quality rules both "Feathers" and "Chef's House"; in both cases reform is too demanding to imagine into existence. For Carver to bother to extend "Chef's House" to include verification of Wes's relapse and Edna's final renunciation would be redundant.

Uncontrollable circumstances claim two more victims in "Preservation." Three months of unemployment has steeped Sandy's husband in the same funk as Wes. He has essentially given up the fight, so he spends his days lazing on the sofa, an emblem of his surrender: "That goddamn sofa! As far as she was concerned, she didn't even want to sit on it again. She couldn't imagine them ever having lain down there in the past to make love" (37). His unstated justification may be that because man cannot prevail, he must learn how to endure; therefore, he adopts a posture of equanimity that Sandy finds maddening. When she happens upon his book Mysteries of the Past, and reads about a man discovered in a peat bog after two thousand years, her husband's petrified figure comes readily to mind.

When their freezer gives out, they are surrounded with perishables on all sides—a precise image of their own domestic entropy. Sandy frantically prepares to cook up as much as possible before everything spoils, but her husband is not up to any exertion and drops off to sleep on the sofa. She considers the prospects for finding a decent used freezer at an auction, but she can only sustain enthusiasm on her own for so long. The sight of her barefoot husband standing in the water puddling from the useless freezer once again recalls the preserved corpse from Mysteries of the Past: "She knew she'd never in her life see anything so unusual. But she didn't know what to make of it yet" (46). In predictable Carver fashion, Sandy's inarticulateness completes her bondage.5

The expense of psychological and verbal repression is evidenced in the airless interior monologue of "The Compartment," whose title metaphor connotes the main character's predicament of self-containment without self-sufficiency. Myers is traveling by train to visit his son at the university in Strasbourg. It has been eight years since their last contact. A letter from his son, whose signature included "love," has initiated the flicker of optimism that has enabled Myers to subdue, for the moment, his suspicion that the boy had been guilty of "malign interference" between his parents, thereby hastening their violent separation.

Myers's unease about the impending meeting fills him with ambivalence, for the clutch of past irritations and blame continues to oppress him. Furthermore, in the intervening eight years Myers has not changed for the better. His aloofness, which is intimated to be one of the principal reasons behind his failed relationships, has intensified, as suggested by the fact that in planning his vacation he could barely imagine anyone whom he might have informed of his absence. His insularity is also documented by the meagerness of his leisure—he reads books on waterfowl decoys—as well as by his aspiration to live "in an old house surrounded by a wall" (48). He envies the man who shares his railcar because his inability to speak English and his talent for sleep combine to ensure his inviolability. Meanwhile, Myers passes the time by perusing guidebooks about places he has already visited and regretting that he had not gotten to reading them before—a situation that precisely parallels his belatedness in familial affairs.

Briefly put, Myers is a man trapped in the conditional tense. His European vacation has been contaminated from the beginning by his self-imposed segregation. He feels isolated and maladaptive in the most exotic cities, and about as spontaneous as a spider. The prospect of encountering his son at the train station sets off a prolonged series of calculations, as though he were a foreign ambassador uncertain of the local amenities: "Maybe the boy would say a few words—I'm glad to see you—how was your trip? And Myers would say—something. He really didn't know what he was going to say" (50).

Because he cannot envision the future, Myers is mired in his troubled past. The climax of "The Compartment" comes when he discovers that the gift he had bought for his son, the watch he was keeping in his coat pocket, has been stolen. He ludicrously tries to intuit who the thief is, but this only increases his humiliation and anger. He is helpless among foreigners; the invasion of his privacy confirms for him that the entire adventure has been a mistake. He realizes that he had not wanted to see his son, that somehow their true enmity had been obscured.

Myers does not get off the train at the Strasbourg station. He watches a romantic parting at the platform, but is careful to avoid being seen by his son, who is probably waiting there for him. Nor does he have the courage to ask the conductor if the train's next destination is Paris. Indeed, Myers is a man for whom any contact seems like "malign interference." Lost in regret, he wanders onto the wrong railcar while his own is uncoupled. Even Myers himself recognizes this last embarrassment as representative of the dissociation that defines him. His belongings gone, surrounded by strangers whose appearance, language, and joviality exclude him, Myers wanders down the maze of tracks: "For a moment, Myers had the impression of the landscape shooting away from him. He was going somewhere, he knew that. And if it was the wrong direction, sooner or later he'd find it out" (58). Sleep finally arrives like a benediction.

The husband in "Vitamins" is just as exasperating as Sandy's. In response to his wife's ranting about how she detests her job coordinating a group of young women who sell vitamins door to door—even her dreams are infected by vitamins, she bitterly complains—he recoils into muteness. He has a "nothing job" of his own as a hospital janitor; however, instead of commiserating with Patti about her misery, he rationalizes making passes at her employees during a drunken party and, later compelling one of them, Donna, to meet him on the sly.

This is familiar territory—trying to lose one's guilt in tawdriness, to court oblivion like a lover. He takes Donna to a "spade bar" he has frequented in the past, and once settled, they begin to grope one another with impunity. But their tryst is interrupted by the arrival of two black men who insinuate themselves at their booth. One of the men, Nelson, who has just returned home from Viet Nam, brags about the tactics of psychological warfare he had learned there and begins to practice them. He offers to display the prized shriveled ear he had cut from a corpse and startles them with sudden threats of violence. Most disturbing are his lewd offers to Donna to pay for her company, which he fortifies with suggestions that the man's wife is probably involved in some obscene relationship of her own even as they speak. In this way Nelson serves as a kind of vile conscience for the would-be lovers. They feel exposed, out of their depth; even though they manage to extricate themselves from the bar, Nelson's last remarks follow them: "He yelled, 'It ain't going to do no good! Whatever you do, it ain't going to help none!'" (107).

Sentenced to failure by this vulgar prophet, the unnamed husband and Donna recoil from one another into their respective justifications. He asks perfunctorily about her plans, but "right then she could have died of a heart attack and it wouldn't have meant anything" (108). She makes a clumsy effort at building a faith in a new beginning in Portland: "There must be something in Portland. Portland's on everybody's mind these days. Portland's a drawing card. Portland this, Portland that. Portland's as good a place as any. "It's all the same" (108).

It is all the same for him as well when he comes home to Patti's rantings over yet another bad dream. Once again Carver demonstrates how attempts to escape confining routines merely reveal, their viciousness and resiliency:

I couldn't take any more tonight. "Go back to sleep, honey. I'm looking for something." I said. I knocked some stuff out of the medicine chest. Things rolled into the sink. "Where's the aspirin?" I said. I knocked down some more things. I didn't care. Things kept falling (109).

He is assailed by gravity. From aimless anger, to furtiveness, to apathy and resignation—so runs the course of private ruin.

In "Careful," Lloyd's cramped accommodations in Mrs. Matthews's boardinghouse are similar to Mr. Slater's "vacuumed" dwelling in "Collectors." Lloyd has neither clock nor telephone to trouble his womb-like limbo; out of work and alcoholic—his attempt to wean himself from hard liquor with cheap champagne now has him downing it by the bottle—he has diminished to a blur. In fact, he has grown so incurious about affairs outside his attic apartment that when one afternoon he passes his landlady's door and notices her collapsed on the floor, he "chooses" to assume she is asleep instead of injured or dead and hustles back to his quarters. Nor can he muster the energy to reflect about his "mildly crazy" habits for very long. "Then, the more he thought about it, the more he could see didn't matter much one way or the other. He'd had doughnuts and champagne for breakfast. So what?" (112-13).

On the day his wife, Inez, shows up for a serious discussion about their future, Lloyd is suffering from a blocked right ear. Their separation, a result of what Inez had termed an "assessment," has apparently been a tonic for her, for she arrives with new clothes and new vitality; she is set to thrive. For his part Lloyd is at the low point of his postpartum depression. As in "Chef's House," a wife's departure signals the imminence of collapse. With symbolic aptness his ear condition has upset his equilibrium and made it difficult to hear his wife. His head feels like a barrel in which his own solipsistic, self-pitying voice endlessly reverberates, which is a far cry from that time "long ago, when they used to feel they had ESP when it came to what the other was thinking. They could finish sentences that the other had started" (117). Now her cares and consolations spatter uselessly against him.

After failing with assorted and potentially hazardous implements to dislodge the buildup of wax, Inez seeks out Mrs. Matthews for help. She returns with baby oil, which she warms to pour into Lloyd's ear. Clearly her apprehensive husband is in need of supervision, and Inez's attentions are of necessity more maternal than wifely. ("Careful" sounds like the plea of a nervous child or a parent's gentle patronage.) Lying on his side to let the oil do its work, Lloyd feels helpless; his whole apartment seems out of whack.

Lloyd's ear finally opens, first to his delight, then to his dismay as he realizes that there is little he can do to stave off another such episode. Meanwhile, Inez consults with Mrs. Matthews in the hall; perhaps she is finalizing the transfer of the nursemaid role to the landlady. Due to the time lost to the crisis, she does not have the time to go into the subject that brought her here in the first place. In the end Inez escapes to other commitments, leaving Lloyd to contend with his inertia. But with his impacted condition—plugged up and mired in irresponsibility—Lloyd is not going anywhere at all.

"The Train" is Carver's sequel to John Cheever's story "The Five-Forty-Eight" (1958).6 Cheever's story concerns the revenge of a secretary against her rather vile boss, Blake, who used her sexually only to fire her in order to escape further complications. She has exhibited signs of mental instability, and she now tracks her culprit to the train, where she accosts him, showing him that she is carrying a gun in her purse. Blake cannot elicit aid from the other passengers; with nightmarish poetic justice it turns out that the only other passengers around him are also people he has mistreated in the past. When he and his secretary are finally alone at the station, she makes him submit to a symbolic act of repentance and self-excoriation: he must drop to his knees and smother his face in the dirt. Nevertheless, his recriminations extend only so far as his fear of death; the woman's departure leaves no lesson or epiphany in its wake. Although he does seem to be more intensely aware of the tenuousness of what had always been the secure surroundings of Shady Hill, "he got to his feet and picked up his hat from the ground where it had fallen and walked home."7

Carver picks up the forgotten thread of Miss Dent, who is preparing for her trip back into the city. The model story is reimagined according to the spartan specifications of the Carver style: Miss Dent's complexities are contracted to a motiveless menace, and the thoughts of the woman who still carries the gun with which she has recently threatened a man are suspended by a matter-of-fact style that also inhibits the "gift for dreams" she had been credited as having in Cheever's rendition. Moreover, her plot is displayed by the indecipherable conversation of an old man and middle-aged woman who are sitting near Miss Dent in the station waiting room. Their absurd agitations invoke Miss Dent's sense of irony and she considers what their reaction would be were she to inform them that she has a gun in her bag.

All of a sudden the couple converges on her with bizarre accusations:

"You don't say much," the woman said to Miss Dent. "But I'll wager you could say a lot if someone got you started. Couldn't you? But you're a sly boots. You'd rather just sit with your prim little mouth while other people talk their heads off. Am I right? Still waters. Is that your name?" (153).

Apparently Miss Dent is hardly manifested by her outrageous episode; every Carver character, after all, is the hero of some tragedy so supremely important that he cannot lend himself to another's.

As the anonymous passengers watch these three people board the train, "they felt sure that whatever these people's business had been that night, it had not come to a happy conclusion. But the passengers had seen things more various than this in their lifetime" (155). Everyone is a closet mystery, but the rampant preoccupation and self-interment of Carver's characters prohibit them from experiencing any more substantial intersection than this. It appears that Cheever's Blake, who only enters "The Train" by implication, is unremarkable in his immunity to reflection. Furthermore, since they are obsessed by their own stories, they "are only lethargically aware that the world is diverse and 'filled with business of every sort,'" and they "cling to the prejudice that they do not care to know more. They can't be shouted at."8 Its plot potential squandered, "The Train" speeds off into the darkness.

The interest the narrator takes in the newly arrived Minnesota family in "The Bridle" results from her suspicion that their bankruptcy mirrors her own sense of a foreclosed future. Holits, his wife, Betty, and their two sons have come to Arizona in search of better luck. As co-manager (with her husband, Harley) of the apartment building, the narrator is concerned at first about whether or not the new tenants will be responsible about paying their rent, but she feels for their predicament; bad luck can come to anyone, and "no disgrace can be attached to that" (191). Holits pays his rent and damage deposit with fifty-dollar bills, and she is moved to wonder about the "exotic" fates of the bills themselves as they pass from place to place and hand to hand. Indeed, even her unfortunate tenants have the advantage of movement; meanwhile, she is rooted to a claustrophobic role, her life assigned to a gruff husband who spends the day addicted to television and who sleeps at night "like a grindstone" beside her (201).

Both as building manager and as a stylist (she abjures the term "beautician" as too old-fashioned), the narrator presides over the sad little dramas that are played out on the premises. These range from the pedestrian—bouts with alcohol, disaffection, and loneliness—to the wickedly cynical, as seen in the building party that features a drawing for an attorney's free divorce services. When Betty gets a split-shift waitressing job, she comes to the narrator for a dye job on her roots, and under the soothing influence of the hair stylist's care (paralleling the consequences of the barber's "sweet" art in "The Calm"). Betty confesses the history of her tribulations. She is Holits's second wife—his first wife ran out on him and the children. Holits bought a racehorse, which he named for Betty, and which he believed would be the instrument of their salvation. However, Fast Betty has proven to be a perennial loser, and mounting gambling losses as well as the cost of upkeep itself has sundered their dreams of "working toward something" (199). The narrator compliments Betty's cuticles, but it is meager solace for someone who is convinced that she is a long shot who will never finish in the money; she does not even bother to dream anymore. Cosmetic improvements—the dye job on her hair, the new job, the new residence—cannot change her essential entrapment.

After this episode Betty keeps away from the narrator for some time, and Holits also appears to have found employment, for he is seldom seen. The climax of the story occurs when during a drunken party with some of the other renters at pool side after closing hours, Holits tries to dive into the water from atop the cabana. He hits the deck, gashing his forehead. The narrator, incensed by the display (and probably by her exclusion from the group as well) rushes to the scene. The scene concludes with a blundering rush to the hospital, with Holits deliriously repeating his complaint: "I can't go it" (204). Significantly, Harley sleeps through the entire crisis.

"I can't go it": the phrase is an apt motto for Holits, for whom the crash to the deck is but one more in a line of downfalls. Betty quits her job to nurse him and Holits grows sullen and standoffish. Soon they are seen packing up for another move. Forever at a loss, they must believe in luck because, presumably, luck can change. Meanwhile, Harley has no compassion to waste on that "crazy Swede" and his family, and he settles back in front of the television as though "nothing has happened or ever will happen" (207). In a surprisingly rebellious exhibition, his wife inserts herself between Harley and his television screen, but she finds she has nothing whatsoever to say to him.

When she goes up to clean the vacated apartment, the narrator discovers Holits's bridle. Perhaps he forgot it. Perhaps he left it behind as part of a ceremony of divestiture in hopes of preparing the way for a different life. For the narrator the bridle is a clear symbol of restraint, of being controlled from without: "The bit's heavy and cold. If you had to wear this thing between your teeth, I guess you'd catch on in a hurry" (208). She knows what it is to be cruelly reined in, to be perpetually at the mercy of someone, or something, beyond the reach of reason.

The stories discussed above follow the general tone established in Carver's three previous collections. The absence of recourse and the unnourished hopes shrunken to a grudge; the misfired social synapses and the implied ellipses like breadcrumb trails leading from breakdown to breakdown; the "preseismic" endings that "are inflected rather than inflicted upon us"9; the speechless gaps where intimacies are supposed to go—these characteristics persist. On the other hand, some of the stories in Cathedral do suggest an opening out that indicates, however subtly, an ongoing evolution in Carver's art.

The reformulation of "The Bath" in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) as "A Small, Good Thing" in Cathedral is an obvious place to begin to examine this contrast. Carver himself has indicated that the enhancement of the original story's "unfinished business" is so fundamental that they now seem to him to be two entirely different stories.10 Certainly the structure of his sentences has been changed in several instances to be less fragmentary, less constrained. For example, while she is waiting for the arrival of the doctor in "The Bath," the mother's dread is nearly wordless, and absolutely privatized: "She was talking to herself like this. We're into something now, something hard."11 In "A Small, Good Thing," however, Ann (she has been granted a name and a fuller identity, as have the other characters in the story) is presented as having a more extensively characterized consciousness, which is thus more sympathetic and accessible:

She stood at the window with her hands gripping the sill, and knew in her heart that they were into something now, something hard. She was afraid, and her teeth began to chatter until she tightened her jaws. She saw a big car stop in front of the hospital and someone, a woman in a long coat, get into the car. She wished she were that woman and somebody, anybody, was driving her away from here to somewhere else, a place where she would find Scotty waiting for her when she stepped out of the car, ready to say Mom and let her gather him in her arms.

In a little while, Howard woke up. He looked at the boy again. Then he got up form the chair, stretched, and went over to stand beside her at the window. They both stared at the parking lot. They didn't say anything. But they seemed to feel each other's insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent in a perfectly natural way (70-71: my italics)

With the expansion of the original version comes a development of the spiritual cost of the crisis. The result of every extension of detail in "A Small, Good Thing"—from the increased dimension of the baker when he is first introduced, to the transcendence of merely symbolic function of the black family at the hospital—is to decrease the distances that separate Carver's characters from one another and Carver's narrator from the story he relates. For one critic the expansion represents a movement away from "existential realism" toward a comparatively coherent, more dramatic, and more personal "humanistic realism."12

Carver's most profound revision is to carry the plot beyond the state of abeyance of Scotty's coma. ("The Bath" concludes in the middle of the phone call, just before the "death sentence" is actually pronounced.) In "A Small, Good Thing," Scotty's death spasm occurs even as the doctor is discussing with the parents the surgery that he will perform to save the boy. Having been assured only the previous day that Scotty would recover, Ann and Howard are absolutely overwhelmed, and they dazedly prepare to withstand the autopsy, to call relatives. Under these more developed circumstances the baker's call is no longer just the ironic plot gimmickry it had been in "The Bath"; instead, his interruption of and ultimate participation in the family's loss in "A Small, Good Thing" precipitates the cycle of "dramatic recognition, reversal, confrontation, and catharsis" that finally gives the story the finished contours of tragedy—the "lowrent" tragic pattern fleshed out to classic dimensions.13 Replacing the blank, dazed reaction of the anxious mother in the former version is her wild anger at the "evil bastard" who has blundered into their grief; when translated to the context of their open wound, his message about the birthday cake sounds ominous and malicious: "Your Scotty, I got him ready for you,' the man's voice said. 'Did you forget him?'" (83).

He hangs up, and only after a second call and hangup does Ann realize that it must have been the baker. Blazing with outrage, desperate to strike out against their defeat, Ann and Howard drive to the shopping center bakery for a showdown. The baker, menacingly tapping a rolling pin against his palm, is prepared for trouble, but Ann breaks down as she tells him of the death of her son. Her debasement is complete, but Carver rescues her from the isolated defeat in which so many of his previous protagonists have been immured. The baker apologizes, and in that instant's compassion is moved to confess his misgivings and his loneliness, and the cold remove he has kept to: "I'm not an evil man, I don't think. Not evil, like you said on the phone. You got to understand what it comes down to is I don't know how to act anymore, it would seem" (88). Their shared bond is inadequacy in the face of loss, joined by a need to be forgiven for that inadequacy. Consequently, whereas in previous stories people clutched themselves in isolated corners against their respective devastations, here they manage to come together in the communal ceremony of eating warm rolls and drinking coffee: "You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this" (88).

The availability of nourishment discloses their common "hunger." Ann Howard, and the baker begin a quiet convalescence, eating what they can, talking until morning. Unlike "The Bath," whose focus is the title's solitary baptism, a purgative reflex meant to ward off catastrophe. "A Small, Good Thing" affirms the consolations of mutual acceptance. Ann and Howard had refused food throughout the story, which suggested their desperate denial. The closing scene "exteriorizes" their misery so as to make available to them the healing impulses of the baker and the small, but significant, brand of grace that human sympathy can provide.

In "Where I'm Calling From," too, commiseration instigates recuperation. In a drying-out facility where the inhabitants are identified and exiled by alcoholism, the narrator is at first unwilling or unable to relate his own story. Everyone at the facility is seized by the same trembling; everyone gauges his relative distance from everyone else's latest stage of collapse, trying to navigate through the mirrorings of his own disease.

Instead of confessing, the narrator persuades a fellow drunk, J.P., to tell his story. By recalling how conditions decayed, J.P. demonstrates a "talking cure" for impacted personalities. Whereas ritualized blandishments about willpower and self-esteem are barely sustaining to people who best recognize themselves in defeat, J.P.'s tale of how he met and married Roxy, a chimney sweep, increases the man's vigor as it frees his voice. It also clears a path for the narrator to follow out of his own eviscerated grimness.

J.P. characterizes Roxy as arrestingly natural and unselfconscious; their courtship started when J.P. was at a friend's house where she had just finished cleaning the chimney. Upon receiving payment, Roxy offered the friend a kiss for good luck, at which point J.P. decided to request the same gift. As J.P. proceeds with his story, Roxy is revealed to be neither maudlin nor promiscuous, just resilient—someone whose capacity for love derives from substantial resources of self-respect. Certainly their relationship had been the best thing to come along in J.P'.s life, until the booze preempted everything.

But Carver does not let "Where I'm Calling From" wither at this familiar impasse. Roxy arrives at the facility to visit J.P., for whom her embrace is an immediate tonic. The narrator marvels at her strength and self-assurance, which sharply contrasts with all the lurking, stalking, and shame that he has been witnessing every day: "Her hands are broad and the fingers have these big knuckles. This is a woman who can make fists if she has to" (142-143). He asks for a kiss, and she gives it easily, taking him by the shoulders as if to brace him for the treatment.

When he was twelve years old, J.P. tells the narrator, he fell down a dry well, and "everything about his life was different for him at the bottom of the well. But nothing fell on him and nothing closed off that little circle of blue. Then his dad came along with the rope, and it wasn't long before J.P. was back in the world he'd always lived in" (130). Salvation is possible, but it requires patience—the one-day-at-a-time creed of the recovering alcoholic—and the belief that "that little circle of blue" is as substantial and reliable as one's entrapment. "Where I'm Calling From" concludes with the narrator's memories of tranquility and his ultimate resolve. Whereas in "The Compartment," Myers lamented his having no idea what he might say to his son, here the narrator figures that saying "It's me" on the telephone is a way to begin again. Obviously he is in the early stage of therapy, but as he determines how to talk to his wife without argument or sarcasm and how to reconnect with his girl-friend again, it appears that where he is calling from need not diminish nor disqualify the fact, that, finally, he is calling.

In like fashion the protagonist of "Fever" finds his anxieties mitigated by the basic inducements of human contact. One of the practical crises Carlyle must face in trying to deal with his abandonment by his wife, Eileen, for his colleague—a mutual friend and fellow high school art teacher "who'd apparently turned his grades in on time" (158)—is locating a dependable babysitter now that fall classes have begun again. His hurried choices, which include a careless teenager and a gruff, ghoulish woman with hairy arms, are disappointing and encourage his fear that Eileen's leaving has left unpluggable cracks everywhere.

Eileen telephones to solicit his understanding in "this matter" (recalling the plastic connotations of Inez's marital "assessment" in "Careful") and to verify her happiness, as though it might be of some indefinable consolation to him. Her unctuous earnestness exasperates him, especially because it is conveyed by the jargon of pop psychology: they are still "bonded," she is "going for it," they need to keep the "lines of communication open," he needs to adopt a "positive mental attitude,"… and say, how's your karma? But despite what Carlyle deems her "insanity," Eileen is prescient enough to have realized that he needs a sitter for the children and a housekeeper. She provides the name of Mrs. Webster, an older woman who had once worked for Eileen's lover's mother (how civil! how sophisticated they are!) and whom she promises he can count on (in contrast, presumably, to her own inconstancy).

Whatever his doubts toward Eileen, Carlyle discovers in Mrs. Webster the kind of quiet dignity and supportiveness, particularly in her intimacies with her husband, that Holly had dreamed of in "Gazebo" as being the special province of the elderly, and indeed, that Carlyle had hoped would represent his future with Eileen. As a result of Mrs. Webster's taking over the household, Carlyle is suffused with calm: he becomes more intrepid in his relationship with his girlfriend (whom he had previously admired for her ability to equate understanding him with not pressuring him), and the family begins to thrive to the extent that Carlyle can face the truth about his wife's permanent decision not to return. When he falls ill, Mrs. Webster easily expands her ministrations to incorporate him as well as his children, and not even fever can deter his prospects for renewal, which have been due in large measure to Mrs. Webster's indiscriminate love.

When Mrs. Webster arrives one day with the news that she and her husband are leaving for Oregon to work on a mink ranch, Carlyle's initial response is panic; to be sure, the sudden shattering of one's delicate composure is common enough throughout Carver's stories, and it would not be surprising for "Fever" to conclude with Carlyle dangling over the pit of his own disarray. Eileen calls again. She has intuited her husband's distress, for which she prescribes journal writing in order to translate and extinguish his problems. But once again Carlyle figures that her craziness contaminates the communication she extols.

Nevertheless, Carlyle is spared a final breakdown. He relates the history of his relationship with Eileen to the eternally patient Mrs. Webster, who bestows her acceptance and predicts his restoration: "'Good, Good for you,' Mrs. Webster said when she saw he had finished. 'You're made out of good stuff. And so is she—so is Mrs. Carlyle. And don't you forget it. You're both going to be okay after this is over'" (185). Consequently, Carlyle learns that he is ready to come to terms with life in the wake of loss. In fact, "loss" is a misnomer for the abiding legacy of his past, in that it "would become a part of him now, too, as surely as anything else he'd left behind" (186). Subdued, yet resolute, Carlyle turns away from the departing Websters and toward his children. This closing gesture implies his emergence from fever and vulnerability, if only to the degree that he is able to offer himself, which is the surest sign of health Carver ever provides.

"There are a few absolutes in this life, some verities, if you will," writes the author, "and we would do well not to forget them."14 Beyond the slow wash of hopelessness throughout Carver's fiction, the stiff coil of the common run that blocks all aspiration, are those moments of fortitude and affirmation that surface in Cathedral and provide some positive, even sentimental, texturing that counters the savage attenuation of character, description, and outlook. Carver specifically heralds the volume's title story on these grounds: "When I Wrote 'Cathedral' I experienced this rush and I felt, 'This is what it's all about, this is the reason we do this.'"15

The story opens with the narrator explaining his consternation at learning that, following the death of his wife, a blind man is coming to stay at his home. His resistance to the idea is partly due to the awkwardness he anticipates—he has never known a blind person, and "in the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed" (209)—and partly due to the fact that the man, an old friend of the narrator's wife and with whom she has conducted a longstanding relationship of mailed tape recordings, represents a part of his wife's life that excludes him. She had been a reader for the blind man during the time of her relationship with her childhood sweetheart, a United States Air Force officer-in-training, which ended in his departure and her bungled suicide attempt. Both her lover and Robert, the blind man, were incorporated into poems that her husband cannot appreciate. Now the narrator is reluctant to endure the intrusion of a man who represents a competitive part of his own wife's life—a man who "took liberties" with her by reading her face with his hands! The awakening of his own selfishness makes the narrator sullen. He tries in vain to imagine how Robert's wife could have stood living with a man who could never see her, and in doing so exposes his own rather repellant insularity and lack of compassion.

However, Robert turns out to be a natural-born confounder of stereotypes. He is a robust, broad-gestured man who easily gets his bearings in new surroundings: he ravages his dinner, readily accepts his host's offer to smoke some pot, and even proves quite comfortable "watching" television. The combined influence of these activities inspires unaccustomed ease in the narrator; when his wife's robe falls open after she falls asleep, he cavalierly reasons that the blind man is unaware, of course, and does not bother to cover her up again.

As the two men turn their attention to a television documentary about cathedrals, the narrator tries to approximate what they are like for the sake of his guest, but "It just isn't in me to do it. I can't do any more than I've done…. The truth is, cathedrals don't mean anything special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They're something to look at on late-night TV" (226). At Robert's suggestion the narrator gets pen and paper and together, and with Robert's hand riding on top of the narrator's, they begin drawing a cathedral. In this way the amenities of keeping company evolve into a communal ceremony comparable to that which closes "A Small, Good Thing." With Robert's encouragement—"Never thought anything like this could happen in your lifetime, did you, bub? Well, it's a strange life, we all know that. Go on now. Keep it up" (227)—the narrator is able to let go of his inhibitions and collaborate in an expressive vision. "It was like nothing else in my life up to now," he confesses to himself (228).

Eyes closed now, the narrator surrenders himself to Robert's gentle guidance, much as Carlyle gave himself over to Mrs. Webster's care in "Fever." Both stories, along with "A Small, Good Thing" and "Where I'm Calling From," emphasize the abundant compensations of shared experience. The protagonists of these stories are not necessarily more articulate than their precursors—the narrator of "Cathedral" can only come up with "'It's really something'" to appreciate the spiritual climax of the story—but they are available to depths of feeling they need not name to justify. If the images that conclude the richest stories in Cathedral are gestures by heavy hands—the breaking of bread against suffering or the unblinding of the blind—they begin to establish a basis for conduct beyond the limits set by stylistic austerity or introversion clung to like some ethical stance. A blind man whose wife has died and a man who admits that he does not believe in anything join together to create a cathedral. It is neither perfect nor complete, but the process is encouraging and adequate for now. Robert's belief in the concluding story is known throughout the volume: it is a strange life. The most sympathetic, most human of Carver's characters "keep it up" anyway.


1. Quoted in William L. Stull, "Raymond Carver," Dictionary of Literary Biography: 1984, ed. Jean W. Ross (Detroit: Gale. 1985) 242.

2. Carver notes that the stories in Cathedral reflect what has been the most "composed" period of his life: "I feel more comfortable with myself, able to give more. Maybe it's getting older and getting smarter. I don't know. Or getting older and more stupid. But I feel closer to this book than to anything I've ever done." Ray Anello and Rebecca Boren, interview, Time 5 Sept. 1983: 67.

3. Raymond Carver, "Feathers," Cathedral (New York: Knopf, 1983) 25. Further references to stories in this collection are noted parenthetically in the text.

4. Michael J. Bugeja views this as a crucial structural flaw in the story. See "Tarnish and Silver: An Analysis of Carver's Cathedral," South Dakota Review 24 (1986): 77-80.

5. Citing this story, Michael Gorra complains that Carver's style actually "dictates rather then embodies his characters' predicament" ("Laughter and Bloodshed," Hudson Review 37 [1984]: 156). A similar dissent is registered by T. Coraghessan Boyle against the formulaic tedium of the "Catatonic Realists": "You know the story, you've read it a thousand times: Three characters are sitting around the kitchen of a trailer, saying folksy things to one another. Finally one of them gets up to go to the bathroom and the author steps in to end it with a line like, 'It was all feathers'" ("A Symposium on Contemporary American Fiction," Michigan Quarterly Review 26 [1987]: 707).

6. John Cheever, "The Five-Forty-Eight," The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories (New York: Harper, 1958). "The Five-Forty-Eight" earned the Benjamin Franklin Short Story Award in 1955.

7. Cheever, 134.

8. Mark A. R. Facknitz, "Missing the Train: Raymond Carver's Sequel to John Cheever's 'The Five-Forty-Eight,'" Studies in Short Fiction 22 (1985): 347.

9. Marc Chenetier, "Living On/Off the 'Reserve': Performance, Interrogation, and Negativity in the Works of Raymond Carver," Critical Angles: European Views of Contemporary American Literature, ed. Marc Chenetier (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986) 173. Chenetier maintains that Carver's method "bludgeons presence upon the reader" through his "violent economy"; however, "past the opening lines the text proceeds to unravel into misdirection" (166).

10. Quoted in Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, "An Interview with Raymond Carver" Mississippi Review 40/41 (Winter 1985); 66.

11. "The Bath," What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (New York: Knopf, 1981) 54.

12. William L. Stull, "Beyond Hopelessville: Another Side of Raymond Carver," Philological Quarterly 64 (1985): 7-9.

13. Stull, "Beyond Hopelessville" 10.

14. Quoted in Stull, "Raymond Carver" 242.

15. Quoted in Mona Simpson, interview, "The Art of Fiction LXXVI," Paris Review 25 (1983): 207.

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